Saturday Eurocrime: Inspector De Luca 2

De Luca and Valeria

It appears that I misinformed myself last week (never a difficult thing when relying on an Italian Wikipedia entry through Google Translate), and only the first episode of the Inspector De Luca mini-series was a prequel. Episode 2 lands us firmly in the dying days of the Second World War, as far as Italy is concerned: it is April 1944, and everybody’s favourite period detective has been posted to Bologna, which is pretty close to the front.
This is supposed to be a reward, but given the proximity of the fighting, and the ruling presence of the Germans, that sword very definitely has two edges.
De Luca (who hasn’t changed in the last seven years, even down to his taste in suits) is currently the most famous Policeman in Italy, thanks to his brilliant detective work in saving Il Duce from assassination. It’s not a fame that he enjoys, particularly as it’s riddled with propaganda: it was good luck and reactions, and an underlying suggestion that De Luca would rather not have done it at all. It certainly isn’t going to make his life easier.
He’s not eating, he’s not sleeping, and no sooner does de Luca arrive in Bologna than he’s greeted by four things in quick succession: partisans bombs interrupting a funeral procession, an encounter with a street urchin whose toy has been confiscated by the Germans, his old colleague from Rimini (who I didn’t mention last week), Pugliese and instructions to go directly to a murder.
The deceased is Ricardo Rehinard (Fox?), stabbed in the heart and groin, in his own apartments. Rehinard, who we will quickly discover is not a nice man, has had three female visitors this morning: Sonja Zarruca, the morphine-addicted daughter of Count Zarruca, Viviane Ariana, a card-reader, and Signora Almieri, wife of a prominent local fascist Professor.
To begin with, there’s a sly, gentle humour to proceedings, arousing a series of wry smiles. It started for me with the title of the episode, Carta Bianca: I found it amusing that, in order to make this comprehensible to an English audience, it had to be rendered into another foreign language, as Carte Blanche. That’s what De Luca’s supposed to have, according to his new commissioner, and the head of the local Fascisti, but when De Luca tests this, he learns that whilst it’s perfectly ok to go after the Zuccari family, carte blanche does not extend as far as the Germans, nor, as he later discover, the Alfrieris.
In practice, it’s only the poor and ordinary who will cooperate to any degree, and that because they can be leaned on: the lot of a Policeman in wartime, in a country that’s facing defeat, albeit with one eye closed, is not easy. In fact, Count Zuccari and Signora Alfrieri both aggressively refuse to even be interviewed: they are above the petty concerns of the Law in their eyes, and as far as Signora Alfrieri is concerned, the party agrees.
As the episode starts to get more serious, and more intense, we start to learn that both families are engaged in collaboration with the invading armies: in competitive collaboration, vying to see who can establish themselves the more trustworthy, so as to retain their status and position when the Allies sweep over Italy. It’s a disgusting sight.
Zuccari’s the more vulnerable and the more proactive: he tries to have De Luca put of the case, sends armed men after him, but he suffers the worse: Sonja, beautiful, blonde but drug-crazy, overdoses on morphine, destroying Zuccari, whilst the Alfrieri’s, who have killed both witnesses, and one of De Luca’s men, are allowed to escape.
Even the card reader, the lovely Valeria Suvich, (who greets De Luca with an immensity of unsupported cleavage) proves elusive, preferring to get it on with him during an air raid that (ostensibly) terrifies her rather than answer a straight question.
It’s growing steadily more fraught, and for De Luca himself. pursues a witness who’s been picked up by the Gestapo, putting himself and Pugliese at risk from them, but there’s an even more serious undercurrent: a long Fascist band is being run by another of his old colleagues from Rimini, Rassetto, who warns him that his name is on a partisan target list, because he is associated with Il Duce’s government: De Luca’s protest that he is merely a policeman is irrelevant.
In the end, Sonja Zuccari’s overdose wraps the case up as far as the authorities are concerned. It is, naturally, not good enough for De Luca, who continues his investigation, eventually tracking down the real killer, the hitherto overlooked Assuntina, Rehinard’s former maid.
Rehinard fired Assuntina for no apparent reason a few days before his death. Unfortunately, he had made her pregnant. As soon as she discovered this, Assuntina came back, pleading for her job back. She witnessed the arrival and departure of Sonja and Valeria (for drugs and sex, respectively) before being able to tell Rehinard, who promptly ordered her out. In fear and anger, she killed him, before Signora Alfrieri arrived to find him dead.
A triumphant De Luca puts Assuntina in chains and takes her back to HQ, intend on reopening the case, and arresting everyone involved, only to find the centre deserted. The front has broken, the Allies are on the way, the partisans are coming out of the woodwork, and Rassetto has turned up to to pull De Luca out of town before the partisans find him.
Even then, the good copper dithers, still wanting to conclude his case in the face of its utter irrelevance in these radically changed circumstances, but under Rassetto’s urging, De Luca comes to his sense, frees Assuntina (who runs like hell), tells Pugliese to get out and hops in with Rassetto, stopping only to return the confiscated clown toy to Nino, the street urchin: his only solid achievement.
As a crime story, the murder, and its deliberately downbeat solution, are merely the peg upon which to hang a story about the investigation of crime in a corrupt society at war, and it is this that makes Inspector De Luca fascinating. This was a far better episode than the first one, because its background, despite the early, disarming, humour, is so much more intense.
Overall, there’s nothing to reflect the complexity and moral ambiguity of the Scandi-crimes thrillers, and the female figures do not compare in strength, but allowing for these, De Luca is a fine programme, and I’m now regretting that there are only two more left.


Theatre Nights: The Annual

Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual 1. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist) The Eyewitness, David Lloyd (artist) The Butler, John Bolton (artist), The Stakeout, Stefano Guadino (artist) The Body, George Pratt (artist) The Cop, Alex Ross (artist) The D.A., Peter Snejberg (artist) The Mugger, Dean Ormston (artist) The Bystanders, Guy Davis (artist) The Solution.
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Sandman Mystery Theatre‘s first and only Annual has to be treated here. It was published contemporaneously with issue 19, the third act of The Scorpion, but it poses the greatest difficulty in finding its true spot in the continuity of the Theatre’s productions. It portrays a carefree and happy Wesley and Dian, a Dian still ignorant of Wesley’s other identity and his activities, and unless we go all the way back to that interregnum between The Brute and The Vamp, it is almost impossible to find an emotionally plausible moment for it to happen.
But in his chapter, Larry Belmont mentions not having seen much of Dian since the Buster Calhoun concert, putting the album exactly contemporaneous with The Scorpion, inside as well as out. Improbable as it may seem, between Dian’s preoccupation with Wesley and the Sandman’s preoccupation with his dream-driven pursuit of the Scorpion, the Annual must take place in the early part of the last play. Given that the events of the Annual cover several nights, perhaps as much as a week, that’s difficult to do, but it’s got to be imagined.
The Annual has no overall title, but it might best be known as The Park. It’s a simple story, divided into nine chapters, spread amongst eight set designers, each chapter set in or around Central Park, which Wesley, in the opening chapter, by Guy Davis, thinks of as the heart of New York City. As such, it escapes the proscenium arch, and is like an open-air performance, with scenes taking place against different landscapes: a refreshing variation.
It begins with a Sunday afternoon date with Dian, for walking, talking and kissing, during the latter of which Wesley sees, but cannot act upon, a terrifying mugger rob a young couple. The Mugger dresses like a monster, with tin hat, goggles, bandanna across his face: bulky in appalling mismatched clothes, wielding a gun and a spiked stick. What disturbs Wesley most is that this apparition has sprung to life without passing through his dreams.
Over the course of the next eight chapters, the Sandman investigates, the Police investigate (at one point identifying the Sandman himself via a sketch, though not even Burke believes he’s the mugger). Some scenes skate around the park: we see how Humphries came to be Wesley’s butler, and learn his secret, we see Larry Belmont trying to handle the demands of this job, we here from a body buried in the Park, accidental victim of an early intervention by the proto-Sandman, sans gas mask and gas-gun, spraying his sleep gas from an aerosol can. We see small boys listening to horror serials on the radio.
And the Sandman unmasks the mugger as a quasi-illiterate immigrant, without a job, with five children and a heavily pregnant wife to deed, with no money, desperate to provide for them.
He’s dealt with with mercy: the mugger’s outfit is left to be found by the Police, the immigrant wakes in his own bed with $300 donated by the Sandman and a warning to use this chance wisely.
It’s theatre in the round, a large part of the fascination being in how different artists treat the New York in 1938.
David Lloyd turns in another immaculate eight-pager as Humphries loyally watched Wesley’s back in the park, whilst musing on his role in life as a servant, and his introduction to the peculiarity of Master Dodds’ service. Lloyd’s art is a modified version of his V for Vendetta style, less heavily chiaroscuro (the chapter is drawn to be coloured and V/Lloyd were at their very best in black and white). On this evidence, Lloyd should certainly have been hired to design a complete play, and it was the Theatre’s loss that the engagement was never made.
In contrast, John Bolton contributes a surprisingly ragged and simple three pager covering the Sandman’s first, fruitless stake-out in the Park. It’s a very long way from, indeed almost unrecognisable against his work in the Seventies and Eighties that made him so much in demand.
Indeed, several of the designers turn in sloppy-looking, almost amateurish, as if they are trying to blur their lack of familiarity with the 1938 setting.
George Pratt, in particular, and Dean Ormston are the worst examples of this syndrome, with Pratt’s ragged, amateurish approach to figures and faces a tremendous disappointment from so talented an artist.
Of course, the star is Alex Ross, then at the peak of his early popularity, here contributing an eight page black and white chapter centred upon Larry Belmont and including Burke. In many ways, Ross is the complete antithesis of a Mystery Theatre designer, his photo-realistic style being worlds away from the impressionistic approach that suits the world of the Theatre, but by drenching his interiors in Forties shadows, Ross beautifully captures the noir aspect of the chapter: one might almost expect Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe entering through a door, gun drawn.
In some ways the least effective chapter is that drawn by Peter Snejberg, in which Dian walks home through the park, after visiting the cinema, unaware that the mugger is following and being thwarted by a series of coincidences.
Snejberg, years before his successful stint on Starman, produces a three page sequence in that style. It’s light and attractive, but his portrayal of Dian is almost unrecognisable. She’s presented as being much slimmer than Davis draws here, and dressed in blouse and skirt that is calf-length, as opposed to the smothering, figure de-emphasising dresses more appropriate to the time. Indeed, the final panel hikes her skirt up to almost knee-length, making her look more like someone from the late Fifties, a teenager from the advent of the Rock’n’Roll era than the Dian we recognise.
Overall, the Annual is a highly enjoyable effort, one that was not repeated, more’s the pity, though a couple of short Mystery Theatre tales of similar length to these chapters appeared in a couple of Vertigo anthologies to remind us of the effectiveness of a short story.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play entitled Dr Death.
Break a leg.

Theatre Nights: The Scorpion

The Scorpion: Sandman Mystery Theatre  17-20. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
By now, we’ve seen enough performances in this Theatre to discern that, just as there are four Acts to each play, there are three elements or strands to each drama.
The first, and simplest, is the drama provoked by the villain, who lends his or her soubriquet to the title of the play: a creature of passions and anger, calculation and brutality, a figure driven to murder and more by forces that compel them in their heinous acts.
The second is the milieu, the setting: that part of the world of 1938 that exists beneath the smooth, sophisticated, jazz-inflected surface of New York Society, the underbelly that people wish to keep hidden.
And the last is the changing relationship between our three principal characters, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and the Sandman, whose name is above the proscenium arch of the Mystery Theatre yet who, in so many ways, is the least of this trio.
Of course, these elements do not stand alone. They interlace, sometimes combining, at others opposing. The first is done by the final Act, an event that is then filed away as a memory with which to dispense, a mere ghost to the next play. And the second is also a passing experience, as the eye of the playwright restlessly seeks another depth in which to sink.
But each story has consequences for our trio of players. The Scorpion leads us to such a moment, that will have enormous effect upon our principals.
The opening Act swiftly and economically sets everything up: we begin with Wesley and Dian enjoying a dinner date, literally only a day or so after The Vamp, putting that memory to bed and raising the expectation of a re-run of their, ah, encounter. Wes, who is still suffering from the wound he receives, skilfully delays this encounter by palming off tickets to a concert by Western star Buster Calhoun. This will utterly delight DA Larry Belmont as well as aiding Wes to avoid both the concert and the hustle it’s designed to promote, seeking fundraisers for an exploitive oil venture in a Europe staring at a near future War.
So Larry has a whale of a time with what’s clearly a pretty cheap, sentimental cowboy singer, packing the worst of country into one evening. He meets the Mayor (who, though not named, is the real-life and well-known Fiorella LaGuardia) as well as a bunch of standoffish and sneeringly condescending Directors of the Oil Enterprise, who rudely take the first opportunity to get out of something they obviously regards as beneath them.
Dian and Larry also meet the rather more open-handed and approachable Cutlers, Managing Director Stephen and his business-like, determined daughter, Cassandra (an unfortunately significant name) and their hotshot,thrusting advertising executive, Terry Stetson.
Meanwhile Director 1, Dechert, goes home with his young, blonde, plump mistress, to start his own brand of sex games with her, involving pretending she is his daughter, and spanking her, a process interrupted by his sudden and violent death, courtesy of a shadowy figure who, unseen by the two ‘lovers’, steps into the room and gives Dechert a single slash on the back with a whip.
This brings in the Police, which means Burke, and also Hubert Klein, who will find himself adopted as a willing ally by the Sandman during this play (a role he relishes because of his own fascination with the pulp magazines and their crime-fighters, like ‘Dickie Bones’, a comparison that the Sandman finds uncomfortably pricking to his self-image).
But commerce continues, and Wesley, now that there is something for his alter ego to investigate, is more willing to be wooed towards investment. And Dian is willing to accompany him, not out of her own thirst for investigation, but just for Wesley’s ever-warming company.
Then, as the Sandman investigates one crime scene, finding the stamped image of a scorpion on the building, we go home with Director 2, Rummel, a sadistic, racist martinet, free with a short whip on his hispanic manservant, until he receives a lash himself. From a big, broad man with a hatred for the rich, the affected, the ‘upper class’. He wears cowboy boots, a bolo tie, and a black bandana with eye holes. He is the Scorpion.
For once, the identity of the villain is not difficult to discern. Though Buster Calhoun is dangled as an obvious suspect, he’s equally obviously a red herring, and there’s only one other person in the story who comes from Out West, and who wears bolo ties anyway, and that’s Terry, the hustler. Hustling the Company as a great investment for Wesley Dodds, hustling Cassandra Cutler into a date.
If nothing else, his extreme fury when Dodds withdraws from the proposed investment (threatening the entire deal), followed by the Scorpion’s attack on Wesley, betrays Mr Stetson immediately.
The surname, of Stetson, is too much to be real and when Terry is unmasked in the final act by Cassandra – who is too confident of herself whilst simultaneously hurt by Terry’s betrayal of her, and who winds up shot with her own gun – and then unmasks himself to Director 3, Lane, an effete homosexual, the name is proven false.
Terry the Scorpion is actually Terry Pritchard, son of a Texas farmer whose lands were bought out for oil, for a fair, even good price, but who was destroyed by his wealth, or rather the refusal of the wealthy to accept him as an equal, and who Terry is determined to destroy.
What has to be admired is that Seagle as scripter makes absolutely no overt correlation between Wesley’s inner contempt and disgust at his fellow businessmen and Terry’s overt rage against them. Absent their methods, these two have a great deal in common.
I’d like to take a moment here to praise Messrs Wagner, Seagle and Davis for a superbly mounted performance, showing the value of a consistent production team. Davis, in particular, cements himself as the Mystery Theatre artist, from whom all others, no matter their qualities, are but lapses. He’s not cinematic, nor dynamic, in any sense that a comic book artist is expected to be. Instead, his people are real, unidealised, their feet standing on the ground.
His art may appear sketchy, and in some places it borders upon the cartoonish – Terry’s short blond hair is composed of a few scribbles and a line to represent the hairline – and it is determinedly two-dimensional, in the sense that there is little sense of depth in any panel, but allied to his stunning colouring, the art has weight. Disbelief need not be suspended, for each and every moment takes on an enviable solidity that has no need to draw attention to itself.
And it is Davis who brings this story to a conclusion that, in terms of artistic subtlety, may be his greatest moment on this series.
For this story is, as I said above, only an episode in the development of the relationship between Dian, Wesley and the Sandman.
As I stated, the story begins in the very immediate aftermath of The Vamp, with Wes and Dian’s first sexual connection: not full intercourse, because of Wes’s very fresh gunshot wound, but in cunnilingus performed on Dian. Now, we have it on the lady’s own coded authority, in The Face, that she is no longer a virgin, and it’s probably not the first time she’s had that kind of devotion, and she’s open without being vulgar about it to both a repetition and a return of the favour.
But there’s a reason why this isn’t happening as soon as it might, that’s got nothing to do with the moralities of 1938 (both public and private), and it’s more than just the additional recovery time Wesley needs for his inconvenient wound. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s his preoccupation with being the Sandman, and the hours that need to be devoted to pursuing the object of his latest dream are precisely those during which the reaching of a greater accord with Dian would best be pursued.
Worse though, Wesley struggles within himself for the courage to confess his dual identity to his love. Especially when he is seriously ill after being struck by the Scorpion’s whip, he still creates fantastic covers involving rich man maladies, delicate stomachs and a surfeit of oysters, rather than being honest.
And Dian, for once, is not curious about the latest serial killer, finding Wesley too much in her eyes for most of the story. Only when she belatedly realises how close it comes to Wesley, and thus herself, does Dian begin to investigate in anything like her usual manner.
And that’s what brings about the ending. The Sandman sets a trap that fails. The Scorpion is wounded, leading to his final attempt to strike. Burke, poisoned by the Scorpion, given the antidote by the Sandman, pursues hotly, but is forced to accept Dian’s interference and aid. Everything converges on Lane’s flat where the Sandman subdues the Scorpion, the Scorpion suffers a stroke, Lane’s mind collapses into memories of childhood abuse by his father, and Burke and Dian pick up the pieces.
The Sandman has left his usual poem, on paper folded into the shape of a scorpion. Burke is his usual, scornful self, deriding the device but unable to recall the name of the art, except that the Sandman always does this. Offstage, in his narration of this play, Wesley recounts his decision to come clean with Dian, to risk all on telling her.
Onstage, Davis draws three panels, closing in on Dian’s face. Her eyes are on the unfolded paper, fixed and silent. As Wesley’s voice tails off in a promise now empty, Dian speaks, her eyes wide, turned to Burke. “Origami,” she says. “It’s called origami.” And her face is that of someone who has reached an unwelcome, numbing conclusion about something she would rather not have known in this manner.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a series of sketches.
Break a leg.

Saturday Eurocrime: Inspector De Luca 1

Impeccable Italianness

After the intolerably self-satisfied Salamander set the cause of Belgian TV back a couple of decades, BBC4’s Saturday night Eurocrime slot has taken itself off to sunny Italy for the next four weeks, running the four-part 2008 mini-series broadcast by RA1, adapting Carlo Lucarelli’s Inspector De Luca in 110 minute episodes. Instead of the double-episode routine, we will get a series of self-contained stories at Morsian length.

The mini-series, as I understand it, does not adapt any of Lucarelli’s novels but deals with Achille De Luca at an earlier stage of his career. The first episode introduces him as a Deputy Inspector, the youngest in all Italy, based in Rimini, where he seems to be the most put-upon and disregarded officer in a station enthused primarily by its close proximity to the holiday villa of Il Duce.

Yes, that’s Lucarelli’s USP (unique selling point): his central character is a detective of honour, a decent man who believes in the Law, who is trying to hold to his principles in a land where the Law is itself crooked, in Fascist Italy. But whilst the books are set at the end of World War 2, with Italy under dual occupation, the Germans holding the north, the Allies the south, the mini-series is set in 1938, when the only war taking place in the Spanish Civil War.

So: is Inspector De Luca worth our time, or is it only fit to point at and laugh?

The first point to make is that it is beautifully made: this is a land of sun and heat, enforcing a certain slowness on its occupants that is reflected in the unhurried pacing of the story. The time is recreated beautifully; the suits, the dresses, the buildings. De Luca, played with an underlying sense of frustration by Alessandro Preziozi, has a handsome face, with thick brown hair that he constantly has to brush back with his hands, and a full but neat moustache. He’s prone to lounging around in the torrid evenings in his vest and braces (this is 1938: belts do not feature), looking like something the women will lap up.

The story is relatively simple: one morning, on the beach, the body of a woman is found on the beach by two Nuns and a group of orphans, killed by a single bullet. The Police arrive, with De Luca in tow, though it is he who identifies the woman as a well-known local prostitute, Miranda, better known as ‘Luscious Butt’. The Chief of Police decides that the killer must be her pimp: he is picked up, a confession is beaten out of him and he is sent to Rome for trial, and the squad receive congratulations from Il Duce on their splendid success which, as the Chief later points out, makes De Luca’s doubts and his determination on a private investigation into a slander on Il Duce, an accusation that he is wrong. And everyone know that Il Duce cannot be wrong.

However, De Luca persists. He has no official authority, and such support as he can command is snatched privately, behind people’s backs. Reluctantly, he works with two others, journalist Gabriele Dannunzio and Judge Trapatanni, who are members of an anti-fascist group.

From the beginning of the story, suspicion points to Count Ultimperger, whose villa in this hot and shadeless land is a miracle of internal coolness. The Count is well-placed in one political faction, undoubtedly a future minister, favoured by Count Ciani (who is not identified for the home audience, leaving the British audience to potentially fail to grasp this significance, unless they already know that Ciani was Mussolini’s son-in-law). In pursuing an investigation that threatens the career of a man like this, De Luca is edging out precariously on more than one shaky limb.

Especially as Colonel Silvestri, a figure involved with both Il Duce’s personal guard AND a differing political faction, keeps ointerfering. At first, he warns De Luca off his private investigation, then he switches to demanding that De Luca bring the murder weapon to him, personally.

And then there’s Laura: Countess Laura Ultimperger, to be precise, played by the utterly gorgeous Polish actress Kasia Smutniak. Laura, we will ultimately learn, to no great surprise, is the murderer, but in the meantime she attracts De Luca (he’d have to be several weeks dead for her not to have), seduces him and ultimately abandons him, with Silvestri’s aid.

De Luca tries hard, tries to the bitter end to bring justice to the villains, but it has always been an uphill struggle and Preziozi plays De Luca as a man who, underneath his idealism, has always strongly suspected he will not be allowed to complete his task. Indeed, he can’t: Laura’s alibi is false, but it cannot be exposed for her alibi is Il Duce, and that would expose his alibi as being false…

De Luca’s realisation at that point that he has reached an immovable object is desperate but final. Worst still, it leads directly to his promotion of Inspector, and transfer to Rome, though his first act there is to destroy evidence against Dannunzio as an anti-Fascist…

Was it any good? The story was not free from cliche, though the overall, low-key approach taken by everyone to everything (except singing the praises of Il Duce) prevents any of these from becoming offensive by rendering them somewhat insignificant. The plot is primarily a peg upon which to hang a study of this place, this time, this strange world where an honest Policeman is rare and where Justice, even if pursued, is unlikely to be met.

De Luca’s not any kind of super character. He’s honest and dogged, but he’s also somewhat undemonstrative. He thinks about what he does, but comes to no miraculous deductions and sometimes has to be led. In getting involved with Laura, he makes a bad mistake, of which he is aware, and which hurts him badly at the end, but then again it’s very easy to see how someone who looks like Kasia Smutniak – cool, self-contained, very aware of the effect she creates, and overwhelmingly beautiful – could cause a man to act against his better judgement.

De Luca is, at the end of the day, a maverick, but only in the sense that he is the decent, ordinary copper, doing his job, whilst those around him are tainted by the hand of fascism and the requirement to squeeze things into pre-determined lines.

Overall, this isn’t anything remotely as compelling asThe Killing or The Bridge, and it would not be a pain to miss, but nor is it irritating and risible, like Salamander. It’s slow, but in the sense of not hurrying, rather than dragging, and it’s beautifully made, although it possesses a certain insubstantiailty due to its lack of urgency. It’s central character is, so far, underplayed and needs development, but overall it’s a pleasant distraction, and it’s not going to run for long. What sells it the most is its time and setting: this is a foreign world at a fraught time, and to be placed in it is thought-provoking.

Book me in for next Saturday.

A Bloody Embarrassment: credit where credit’s due

On another day, this might have been a post to record yet another landmark in Droylsden’s season from hell: three goals conceded at home today to Witton Albion take the Bloods’ Goals Against column in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Premier Division to exactly 150.

But for once the Goals Against column can go ignored for the statistic of the day is that Droylsden scored 4: yes, the country’s first-to-be-relegated team has won its first match of the season, has doubled its points tally to six, has in fact won its first game in 48 matches and 11 months 13 days.

Apparently, Droylsden tried their best to throw it away, allowing Witton to draw level after taking a 3-0 half-time lead, but not this time. A win at last: I’m dead chuffed for Colin and the rest of my former mates.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Prestige

Because of the internationally successful Christopher Nolan film of 2006, The Prestige will probably go down as Christopher Priest’s best work, or most certainly best-known work. And it won’t be an undeserved fate.
The Prestige is certainly the least science fiction oriented of Priest’s works, even if it contains a scientifically implausible achievement an essential part of the story, and it is the most straightforward story in his oeuvre, in both conception and construction.
The book tells of the rivalry between two rival Victorian magicians by means of their own accounts of their lives and, to one extent or another, their hostility to one another. Both accounts – firstly by Alfred Borden, who performs as Le Professeur de la Magie, and Rupert Angier (later the 14th Lord Colverdale) as the Great Danton – comprise the greater part of the book, each preceded by a shorter account from the contemporary great-grandchildren of the two magicians, and ended by a brief contemporary section that ends the story with a twist of horror that, appropriately, has a very Nineteenth Century feel.
I’m going to assume that if you haven’t read the book, you have seen the film (which has a greater dramatic unity, dispensing with the contemporary element of the story, and which makes a greater fetish of the secrets of the two magicians). Dramatically, the story turns upon Borden’s extremely successful stage trick, The New Transported Man, and upon Angier’s inability to comprehend how this is achieved and the lengths to which he goes, on several levels, to better Borden’s trick.
The answer, in Borden’s case, is incredibly simple, even banal. Indeed, Priest prepares us for this in an early section (told by Borden), when he discourses upon magic, and the audience’s expectations of it. All magic is a trick: there is nothing that it genuinely supernatural,and the audience at heart does not want to know how the trick is performed, because it is a product of rationality and simplicity.
How can Borden disappear on one side of the stage and reappear instantly on its opposite side? He is twins, identical twins, an explanation Angier’s bluff, experienced ingeneur seizes upon instantly but Angier rejects. But simple though the explanation is, Priest is interested in, and bamboozles Angier with, the means by which the trick is perpetuated.
Though the truth is not exposed until much later in the book, it is openly displayed (in a manner guaranteed to cause confusion for the first time reader) in Borden’s text (a privately printed book of exceedingly limited circulation). To make the trick work, from a very early stage and for their entire lives, the Borden twins rigidly conceal their existence from everybody else (even the name Alfred is a fake, combined from Albert and Frederick).
The brothers never meet in person for more than fleeting seconds, and they alternate in Alfred Borden’s life, an existence that includes/excludes Borden’s wife, children and mistress. In Borden’s narrative, at times a dialogue takes place between I and I that sounds bizarrely schizophrenic, but which is entirely understandable once the true circumstances are known.
Interestingly, Angier first attempts to duplicate the trick he cannot understand by duplicating it exactly: Angier employs a double to appear after he disappears. This is less successful and satisfactory, for the double is not identical, but mainly because it is Angier who disappears offstage, and the double who appears, and who takes the applause.
The horror that underlies this story derives from Angier’s obsession with squaring this circle, an obsession no less great than that of Borden who has divided himself in two to live one life, creating an illusion in order to protect an illusion.
And he produces his version, In a Flash, which exceeds Borden’s trick in a way that, the roles aptly reversed, Borden cannot understand and, in attempting to uncover the mystery, inadvertently ‘kills’ his rival.
So far, I have been discussing the film as much as the book. The significant difference between the two, and which Priest (who discusses book and film at length in his self-published The Magic) identifies as the element that made him feel that the book was worth writing, is the contemporary framework.
It is through this that we are introduced to Borden and Angier. Andrew Westley, a would-be journalist who has found himself specialising in fantastic and implausible events, is drawn under false impressions to a former ancestral hall in Derbyshire by his near-contemporary, Kate Angier, properly Lady Katherine Angier. Westley was adopted when young, but has consciously avoided tracing his birth family, cutting himself off under the rational (yet petulant) decision that they did not want him so he wants nothing of them.
Only one factor contravenes this decision, and that is Westley’s persistent belief, underlaid by mysterious, super-natural experiences, that he was a twin, and that his twin is still alive somewhere and wishes to be reunited with him. But, in a pre-emption of Alfred Borden’s story, every record shows Westley to be an only child.
Westley discovers Kate has decoyed him to Colverdale Hall to force upon him knowledge of the birth family he has rejected: that his birth name was Nicholas Borden, that Alfred was his great-grandfather, that Borden and Angier feuded aggressively, that Kate is Angier’s great-granddaughter, and that in some way he neither believes nor understands, they are both marked by that feud.
It’s not until Kate provides her own narrative, after Borden has told his half, that we begin to see how that might be. Because Kate has met Westley, or rather Nicky Borden, before, many years earlier, when he was three and she five. It came about through a meeting of their parents, an unhappy, unsuccessful, indeed ultimately disastrous meeting that Kate, from her five year old perspective, cannot understand, nor give her adult audience enough to go on to come to reliable conclusions.
Except for two things. Kate’s father’s actions that night involve the exposure and use of the machinery behind Angier’s In a Flash, and subsequently, his abandonment of the family to disintegration, which in Kate’s case has resulted in fear, inertia, virtual hermitage and incipient, if not actual alcoholism. And those actions involve killing Nicky Borden, alias the very much alive Andrew Westley.
From this revelation, we move on to Angier’s account, given in the form of an extended, if occasional diary, its various lacunae arising from initially deliberate destruction, and latterly indifference and preoccupation.
Though Angier does, late in his account, refer to reading Borden’s narrative and comments upon the differing interpretations they have of certain events, there are no major contradictions, certainly not of the kind we are used to in Priest’s work, where we are left deciding between realities. But we are led, carefully and thoughtfully, back to In a Flash, the illusion Borden cannot decipher.
Which is because, like his own twinship, it has a simple explanation, though perhaps not banal on this occasion. In the book’s one excursion into speculative fiction, into the introduction of something not capable of concrete achievement, Angier is actually physically teleporting himself. In short, he is actually doing what Borden pretends to do, what is impossible: except for him.
At that point, I propose to stop discussing the story at all. The end of Angier’s account, the final contemporary section, these contains increasing elements of Gothic horror, dispensed with in a deliberately condensed manner at the very end, where Priest refrains from pinning answers down and allows his readers’ imaginations to spiral, with the benefit of hints that point me to clear conclusions, but which others may not find so defining – not to mention that there may be hints that others may seize upon but which I have not yet discerned.
Overall, The Prestige is a superb book, and one that I recommend highly. It is in part the product of detailed research which enables Priest to convince as to both the solidity of his Victorian milieu and, more importantly, the thoughts, feelings and obsessions of his magician characters.
His analysis of magic, it’s principles, its effects and its psychological underpinnings, are equally convincing in establishing the reality of the Victorian element. And whilst that one moment of science fiction, the teleportation machine – or rather, the bilocation machine – ought to be jarring, Priest quietly fixes it in the story as a rational component that does not jerk the reader out of either the Victorian stage or the psychological opposition of the two warring customers.
It is, rather, the classic moment when the underdog – and despite Priest’s efforts to make the magicians equals, Angier’s self-confessed failure to imagine makes him the permanently weaker of the pair – goes too far in his rivalry, and unleashes what proves to be destruction.
Though structurally it’s vital to Priest’s conception of the story, and to the final revelation of the Prestige of this superbly maintained illusion, I find the contemporary framework to be the weakest part of the novel. That’s because, whilst we learn about Borden and Angier in great and penetrating depth, we have no such opportunity to learn about Westley and Kate.
Though we see how each regards themselves, and how in contrast they see the other, their actual role in the story lasts little more than twelve hours. Their sections are short, their function as examples of the damage done by their forebears’ feud is overridden by the fact that they introduce us to the much more detailed and, I must say this, fascinating, magicians: in short, they are cyphers, MacGuffins, Old Peter telling tales to Vanya and Maroosia.
I accept that’s an unfair summary, especially given that what happens to Westley/Nicky in his childhood is startling and horrific, and has its central effect on what and who both Westley and Kate are in the modern era.
But beyond a few, deliberately vague details, the modern era is itself a cypher, a shell designed solely to tell a story that occupies two areas of the past, and whose physical ending in that imprecise present is deliberately archaic in inspiration and effect.
Further than that I won’t go. I have an old-fashioned respect for an ending, and whilst Priest harps on in The Magic about Christopher Nolan’s concentration upon the surprise ending and the lengths to which he goes to postpone it to the film’s very last seconds, his own ending is reliant upon strands coming together as late as possible.
At the end though, my main criticism of the book is trivial. My first Abacus paperback edition has been typeset by someone with a totally irritating aversion to the figure 1. In every instance where 1 crops up – and given the profusion of dates, especially in Angier’s diary, that’s a lot – the typesetter has used the capital I instead.
It’s a letter, not a number. Though a small thing, it is a perpetual irritation, an affectation and a sloppiness: letters and numbers look different on the page. Every time I see it, I am jerked out of the story by some fraction, removed from Priest’s world as writer into mine as reader. Nothing worse can be done in a story.
And The Prestige deserves far better.

A Universe in One Comic Book: Astro City Volume 3, #10

I’m going to be very honest. I’ve loved Astro City for years now, re-read it a dozen times, and been frustrated through the long periods it’s been out of circulation. It’s now been back for ten issues from Vertigo, featuring worked that was planned and executed back in 2010 or so, when it was expected to be a more-or-less direct continuation from the last couple of Specials. This issue concludes the four-parter centring on Winged Victory, and it does so in a manner that’s typically Busiekian, where the climax lies not in the thundering blows of superhero/superficial battle, but rather in the insight and change of heart that is a consequence of the fight, or realisation of the deeper issues that underlie the present danger.

And I’m still not moved, still not thrilled, still not convinced the way I used to be and absolutely want to be. There’s something missing. I don’t know what it is – if I did I’d up and say it in front: this is a review, not a mystery – nor do I know whether it’s in Astro or in me.

As for the actual issue, it’s good, in its way, though one of the problems with this story is, I think, that throughout it has been too close to mainstream superheroics. This being the climactic issue, it begins with Victory, Samaritan and the Confessor charging into action together, though that point in the issue doesn’t come until over halfway through. It’s a splash page scene done to show the equivalent of DC’s Trinity in action, when the real meat of the story are the two scenes between Voctory and the Council of Nike, the women who collectively invest Vic with her power, over whether she is to remain Winged Victory.

(Look, I know Nike the Goddess, the feminist figure, came a long way first but that is not helping the overwhelming tendency whenever they come up to start thinking of sports shoes).

The above may be half a joke, but it is a real issue, and it dovetails with the other serious problem underpinning this story, which is exacerbated by that splash page. I’ve never had any problem before telling that Vic isn’t Wonder Woman, any more than Samaritan is Superman, but now that Batman’s been thrown into the mix – and the new Confessor is so Batman in exactly the way the old one wasn’t – the shadow of the Trinity hangs too heavy over the Astro City analogs and I cannot quite perform the essential trick of splitting my inner sight between them.

Anyway, the big bad is indeed Karnazon, of the Iron Legion, and a right muffin he looks,Anderson and Ross’s designs having, for once, toppled over into risibility when it comes to portrayimg a quasi-beast like masculine superiorist, and thankfuly Vic makes punching his lights out the perfunctory thing you want it to be the moment you see him, so the status quo can be (mostly) reset, with most people glad to hear it’s all been a frame, and those who welcomed it with open arms remaining unconvinced. So, what was it all for? (The Weather, or the battle of Agincourt? Excuse me, I’m just this minute listening to Billy Bragg).

What this four parter has been about has been defining Winged Victory. As I’ve had occasion to comment about earlier issues, she exists as a symbol. I won’t say ‘feminist’ since that is currently an excuse for deliberate misunderstanding and straw woman arguments, but Winged Victory is empowered by women, for women. To be on their side, to save and protect them, to be their specific hero but, far more important, to be their symbol. To show them, by teaching, training and sheer example that they can be strong, that they can rely upon themselves, that they do not need to depend on men to do things for them.

It’s a simple statement, in intention and symbolism, simplistic enough perhaps that it can only be effective in a superhero story (even if it’s one that comes with Astro‘s levels and shades). That simplicity is its power. William Moulton Marston saw Wonder Woman as a symbol of female power (with some dark undercurrents but we won’t go into those) and Winged Victory is, if anything, a more conscious/conscientious application of that theme.

But it’s during this last issue, when Vic stands in fear of losing her role, and thus her entire life, that she begins to see the limitations of that symbol. If she can only ever stand alone, not to have the love and comfort of a partner, not to have assistance from those who will help, yet still be supposed to give assistance to them, as a way of demonstrating women’s power, if anything except the pure symbol is disgrace, defeat and diminishment, is what she has been created worth it?

Vic expresses it very simply to herself: once, Karnazon did things. He was still just as evil, still just as violent, but he did it for selfish reasons, to knock over banks, take over countries. For far too long, he’s sunk back into being Winged Victory’s opposite,the masculinist to her feminist, seeing himself only in the symbolic light of the desire to prove men are better than women.

I find Victory’s realisations to be a fruitful source of thought, but then I’m a man, not a woman, and so is Busiek, so we are both of us open to charges of chauvinism, and failing to check our privilege, and I ain’t going there. I’m rather more impressed by the personal element of having the story end by Vic changing back to Lauren Freed and visiting the mother she’s avoided for years.

There’s obviously a lot in this issue, this four-parter, but I’m going to circle back to the beginning again and say that, despite all this material, I still find something missing in the current Astro City volume. In part it’s that there is insufficient of a transition from beginning to end: some staff don’t come back to the centre, the media get let in, Samothrace takes on its first male trainee (which, laudable as it is in this specific context, is just asking for trouble in anything resembling this world) and Lauren visits her Mum, but it doesn’t feel like anything has truly changed, which plonks us back in mainstream territory.

Nor am I any nearer to deciding what is different about volume 3, or about myself, that is standing in the way of that click that happens when I read even The Dark Ages.

It’s not going to stand in the way of buying the comic, but it does stand in the way of being comfortable with Astro City as I used to be, and I don’t like it. Does anyone else feel the same?